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Many New York City Subway stations are decorated with colorful ceramic plaques and tile mosaics. Of these, many take the form of signs, identifying the station's location. Much of this ceramic work was in place when the subway system originally opened on October 27, 1904. Other newer work continues to be installed each year, much of it quite cheerful and fanciful[1] [2].


Heins & LaFarge (1901–1907)[]

Two firms were pioneers in creating this masterful ceramic work.

The earliest work was done by Heins & LaFarge (artists George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge), starting in 1901 and continuing up to 1907. Heins and LaFarge were both relatives of John LaFarge (brother-in-law and son, respectively), who was a leading stained-glass artisan of the day. They were part of the Arts and Crafts movement and worked in the Beaux-Arts architecture style, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the Twentieth Century. At the time of their hiring they had completed large projects at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Bronx Zoo. As well as designing the artistic motifs, Heins & LaFarge also did much of the architectural work that determined the overall appearance of entire subway stations.

They knew what type of materials would stand up well to heavy-duty cleaning and scrubbing; they worked with the ceramic-producing firms Grueby Faience Company of Boston and Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati. Their ceramic artwork includes colorful pictorial motifs relevant to a station's location, for example:

  • The South Ferry station is decorated by 15 bas-relief representations of a sailing ship on the water.
  • The Astor Place station is decorated with large ceramic beaver emblems, representing the beaver pelts that helped make John Jacob Astor wealthy.
  • The 116th Street station includes a bas-relief emblem representing nearby Columbia University.

The bas-relief found underground in the subway has been compared to the work of the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Della Robbia. Much of their tile work was station-identifying signs to guide passengers. As well as pictorial plaques and ceramic signs, another aspect of their work is running decorative motifs, such as egg-and-dart patterns, along station ceilings.

Squire Vickers (1906–1942)[]

In 1906 Squire J. Vickers, a young architect, was hired to continue with the projects. Vickers showed much respect for the style of Heins & LaFarge. His work consists much more of mosaics; he did not utilize the bas-relief technique, citing the need to keep the artwork flat to the wall for easier cleaning. In his pictorial work, Vickers emphasizes actual buildings that might act as landmarks, such as his colorful depiction of Brooklyn Borough Hall (1919) at the station of that name, rather than Heins & LaFarge's beavers and sailing ships. He describes his mosaic technique like this:


Vickers continued to work on subway projects for 36 years, up until 1942.

Exhibition (2007)[]

Two exhibitions, one celebrating the work of Heins & LaFarge and one for Vickers, are to be mounted at the New York Transit Museum's Gallery Annex[3] at Grand Central Terminal during 2007.

Subway Tiles Today[]

Several New York City subway stations have new ceramic and mosaic work, carrying on the subway tile tradition of bringing color and cheerfulness underground. Some examples are:

  • The [[28th Street (BMT Broadway Line)|} station on the BMT Broadway Line is home to fanciful mosaic work "City Dwellers" by Mark Hadjipateras [4].
  • The Houston Street station on the IRT Broadway—Seventh Avenue Line is home to "Platform Diving" by artist Deborah Brown [5]
  • The 81st Street–Museum of Natural History station on the IND Eighth Avenue Line is home to "For Want of a Nail" by the MTA Arts for Transit Design Team [6].
  • The Prince Street station on the BMT Broadway Line is home to "Carrying On" an artwork by Janet Zweig [7].
  • The 110th Street station on the IND Eighth Avenue Line is home to "Migration" by artist Christopher Wynter [8].


Forgotten New York - New Mosaics
Subway Art Guide
SubwayCeramics Historically-authentic subway tile Stookey, Lee (1994). Subway Ceramics. North Haven, CT: William J. Mack Co.